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FarmSubsidy.org and the Power of Information

This article was written by Alex Steffen and Sarah Rich in March 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

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FarmSubsidy.org demonstrates the power of geek activism done right. The project -- from the same people who brought us mySociety, FaxYourMP and TheyWorkForYou.com -- was launched to investigate where EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) farm subsidies were being spent. The budgets here are huge (in 2005 farm subsidies comprised nearly half of the entire EU budget) but opaque, with very little information available to citizens.

Turns out there's a reason for the hidden numbers. As co-founder Jack Thurston said:

For too long people have been misled to believe that farm subsidies are about protecting small and family farms. This data shows conclusively that most of the money goes to large agribusiness and wealthy landowners.

The almost €100 a year each European citizen has been paying each year to support farmers has in fact gone to closely concealed recipients, who quite often turn out to be large corporations and wealthy aristocrats. Again, Thurston:

This veil of secrecy makes a mockery of the idea of a ‘social contract’ between farmers and society based on the provision of environmental and other public goods.

So based on their national, lawful rights, FarmSubsidy.org is demanding change. The organization uses EU freedom of information laws to request that European governments reveal all data on how the farm subsidy budget gets spent. Farmsubsidy.org then publishes all of the data on their website, searchable by a number of different criteria and geographic locations.

It's free information for anyone who wants to know; and with the cooperation of journalists from around the EU, FarmSubsidy recently reached a groundbreaking milestone, when the council of ministers and the European Parliament finalized a decision to force the public disclosure of detailed data about nearly €100 billion in farming and food-related subsidies. According to the Guardian, this is "the biggest release of information held by governments to the public and the media since the creation of the European Union."

Using transparency laws to get real data about the systems on which we depend and parsing the data with good code can make visible the invisible flows around us. When that happens, the systems themselves change. Geek activism isn't about technology, it's about information, and information is the lifeblood of democratic reform.

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FarmSubsidy.org is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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